Op-Ed: For Students with Special Needs, Steady Charter Funding Is Essential

Misha Simmonds | March 30, 2016 | Opinion
As funds have dried up, essential services for at-risk students have disappeared

Misha Simmonds
This year, for the first time in eight years, I cried because of my work. As many times before, I was called in to restrain a student whose physical tantrum, prompted by a family issue, threatened his own safety and the safety of others.

His lone teacher was overwhelmed, with no co-teacher to support, because it was deemed too expensive. We no longer had the mental-health staff on site to support him in crisis, because it was not financially sustainable. The parent coordinator who could have intervened had to be laid off.

He was only 5 years old. In his rage, he seemed as strong as a 20-year-old.

With all my might I hugged him in a safety hold so he would stop punching the wall, hitting his head on the floor, and throwing furniture. After some time he calmed and a crisis team arrived. I released him and returned to my office and sobbed.

As executive director at University Heights Charter School (UHCS) in Newark for the past eight years, I have seen firsthand the tough decisions that need to be made to fund our public schools in this fiscal climate. I am grateful that our per-pupil funding level has held steady this year, but like many other schools across the state we are still facing challenges to serve the students with the greatest needs.

UHCS is located in the Central Ward of Newark, amid housing projects and industrial sites. Our students, who join our school through a lottery, belong to historically underserved populations (90 percent African-American, 10 percent Hispanic). Because our rate of poverty is so high (over 85 percent), all of our students are able to receive free breakfast and lunch. Nearly 15 percent of our students qualify for special education, and that does not capture the full extent of special needs our children face because of social-emotional trauma. Murder is not uncommon in our neighborhood, and multiple students have lost siblings, parents or other close relatives to violence, some in just the past several months.

As a result of these circumstances, our young scholars have tremendous emotional, academic, and social needs that challenge our mission to develop in each of them the character, scholarship, and leadership necessary for success in college, community, and life.

Anticipating this, we initially envisioned a classroom model that would put two full-time certified teachers in each classroom to enable more personalized instruction. As enrollment grew over time, we planned to provide a comprehensive education including deep learning in the arts and Spanish.

We sought partnerships with mental health providers to provide onsite psychiatric and counseling services so that students could overcome trauma and be ready to learn. We hired a full-time parent and community coordinator to partner with families to support their children in achieving excellence.

When I started in the 2008-2009 school year, this all seemed possible. Our government funding at the time from both federal and state sources amounted to $17,588 per pupil. Based on recently released state school aid figures, we expect to receive $16,015 per pupil for next school year. This difference in real per-pupil aid leaves us $1.3 million short of anticipated funding if government aid had kept up with inflation.

Although revenues have fallen behind, costs have risen. Nearly 80 percent of our budget is for staff salaries, which we have tried to keep competitive because our students need the best educators.

The next biggest cost — facilities — continues to rise. As revenues have fallen in the past and now are holding steady, rent continues to increase, which takes instructional resources out of the classroom.

Like all public schools, we have had to cut back. The co-teacher model we believed was essential to meeting all of our students’ needs gradually became unsustainable. First in the upper grades, and finally last year in kindergarten and first grade, it was eliminated.

While we remain committed to a comprehensive arts education, we can afford only to focus on music. We have eliminated visual-art classes, dance, and theater, which we had hoped to provide as an expressive outlet for our students. Instruction in Spanish also became a casualty of tough financial times.

The innovative partnership we had with a mental-health agency was short-lived due to lack of financial sustainability. Similarly, we were forced to lay off our parent coordinator due to budget constraints.

In the face of these challenges, we remain tough and determined and grateful for steady funding from last year, despite the economic challenges it brings. I am tremendously proud of the gains our team has been able to accomplish despite diminishing resources, and know that this gap is largely filled by tremendous personal and family sacrifices by staff, students, and parents alike.

As we are faced with this reality of limited resources, it is imperative that all schools — traditional, charter, magnet, and private alike — work together to come up with innovative ways to serve our most at-risk students and continue to share best practices throughout the state. Collaboration, not combativeness, is what will help ensure all children have the resources they need to thrive.